In the comments on my abortion and coercion post last month Rachael commented that one particular argument of pro-life feminists just seems way beyond the more reasonable point I was making. I was saying simply that abortion can be coerced. Pro-life feminists go much further in saying that abortion is used by men to control women. Is it abortion that's used to control women? Other factors are used to coerce women to have abortions. That's not abortion being used to coerce women to do anything else. At most it would be the availability of abortion as the means for this coercion to get women not to go through with pregnancies, but that's still not abortion being used as a means to control women. It's the other factors that are being used to influence women's choices with respect to abortion and reproductive freedom. I agree with Rachael on this.
It occurred to me today, however, that there's something else going on with this feminist argument that does lead to an ad hominem argument (of the good kind) against some arguments from the pro-choice side.
For those unfamiliar with the two kinds of ad hominem, they are both arguments "against the person" (the literal translation of the Latin expression). The bad kind of ad hominem is when you use something else about a person, unrelated to the issue at hand, to case aspersions on the person's argument, which should stand on its own as an argument. Saying that we shouldn't listen to Bill Clinton's arguments for health care reform because he's a liar and a philanderer would be the bad kind of ad hominem. Saying we shouldn't listen to Rush Limbaugh's arguments against affirmative action because he's a racist would also be the bad kind. The latter is morally worse, because there's no evidence that Limbaugh really is a racist, but both arguments are equally fallacious because each has nothing to do with the issue at hand. These arguments are rhetorically effective, because they bring people's emotions into the issue to confuse them.
The good kind of ad hominem argument is one of the most rhetorically effective forms of argument you can get, but they're also philosophically legitimate. They involve starting with your opponent's view and then showing that even on their view your view follows. Alternatively, they take your opponent's argument style and show that by the same style of argument something else follows that they wouldn't want to accept, which undermines their argument. It's the latter kind of good ad hominem argument that I think might be behind the pro-life feminist argument that Rachael criticized.
Pro-choice feminists often claim that those who oppose abortion just want to control what women do. They talk about getting George Bush out of their reproductive organs and go to great lengths to scare women into thinking pro-life positions are merely attempts to force women to do what men want them to do. The assumption here is that abortion opponents care more about forcing women to live the way they want than they do about the lives of the unborn. It also assumes that most pro-lifers are men, which is far from the case. Women are far more moved by pro-life considerations than men, particularly among the most vocal activists. So it's a bad argument. There's an extent to which men can use the lack of availability of abortion to control women not to have abortions, but it's only in the same way that men can use the availability of abortion to coerce women to have abortions. I think both arguments are bad if you take the conclusion to be everything the pro-life or pro-choice feminists are saying.
However, if you take it as an ad hominem argument, it doesn't sound so bad. The argument would be as follows. If the kind of argument pro-choicers use is any good, and we can justly accuse George Bush of simply trying to control women's reproductive choices, then we can say the same thing about pro-choice men who want to use the availability of abortion to coerce women to kill their fetuses so the men don't have to deal with the consequences of sex. If we can assume that any opposition to abortion is about controlling women's choices, why can't we assume that any support of keeping abortion legal is about controlling women's choices? If we can assume that the official story of why abortion is wrong is not the real motivation of pro-lifers, and we do this because of some hermeneutic of suspicion that leads us to assume the worst of those in power, then why can't we do the same with those who oppose the pro-life view? Why can't we assume on the same grounds that men who insist on promoting the idea of choice are doing so simply to allow men to continue to influence women's choices toward having abortions and thus controlling the women in their lives?
Now as I said, I think both arguments are pretty poor. I generally tend to accept someone's arguments as they stand and not assume that there's something buried behind it that's the real motivation. I'm probably incorrect in that assumption, because we all do have deeper motivations than the official reasons we give. We're all human. However, when discussing someone's argument for their view, I accept the argument as it stands, and I don't speculate beyond what's available to me to use in evaluating their position. At least, that's what I aim to do. When I mentioned the feminist argument, it was a sort of off the cuff/by the way kind of thing, as if to say that some feminists go beyond even what I was saying, and I wasn't endorsing it. I think Rachael was wondering why I even mentioned it if I didn't agree with it, and I think what lay behind my mentioning it was this ad hominem argument that the pro-life feminists should give instead of saying what they say.